Doubt, Pray, Love

1465504231571.jpg

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 26; 30, Ecclesiastes 11:1-8, Galatians 5:16-24, Matthew 16:13-20


No matter how strong our faith, we eventually have a day – or perhaps an achingly long series of days – when God seems far away. We don’t talk about those days much. Rather, we feel pressure to put on a brave face. Expressions of doubt during a Bible study prompt our friends to offer arguments for belief which are probably more about their reassurance than ours. A minor breakdown during prayer time is viewed as unseemly and inappropriate, maybe even fodder for parking lot gossip.

Loss and weakness are fine to discuss if we’ve already overcome them, but no one likes to watch the sausage being made. A story of beating a gambling addiction? Testify! A confession about how your ongoing blackout drinking leads to promiscuity? Better save it for the 12-step meeting. We talk a good game about brokenness, vulnerability, and healing but we really want to skip right to the “after” photo because the “before” mugshot is too upsetting.

The Psalms tell a different story. Many of them describe how we can be simultaneously faithful and in a wretched state. The author of Psalm 130 is crying out to God from the depths of despair. He recognizes his own failings and shortcomings. He finds himself unable to do anything but wait for the Lord and hope for the best. He still puts his trust in God but he’s not putting up a brave front.

Questions, moments of weakness, and despair do not demonstrate a lack of faith. They are the times that tell us whether we had any faith in the first place. Like the psalmist, sometimes the best we can do is beg God to get us through the darkness while we hunker down and hang on until daylight.

A healthy faith community will offer a safe space to rail against injustice, struggles, and the seeming distance of God. It will face darkness head on but shine a light into it. Since communities are made of people, the responsibility of creating such space then falls on each of us. We can be ourselves when we allow others to do the same.

Comfort: God is big enough to love you through your anger and doubt.

Challenge: It can be difficult to navigate when to express our pain and when to keep it to ourselves. Read this piece on how not to say the wrong thing.

Prayer: Loving God, my source of strength and security, thank you for weathering my doubts and fears. I will trust you to see me through this and all days. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever found relief after sharing something you had been keeping to yourself?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people.

Skin in the Game

1460175754942.jpg

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Exodus 17:1-16, 1 Peter 4:7-19, John 16:16-33


Though the nation of Amalek shared a lineage with the nation of Israel, they were bitter rivals. When Israel was encamped at Rephidim, Amalek attacked. While they fought, Moses stood on a hill and held his staff in the air. As long as he kept it raised Israel prevailed, but when he tired and let it drop Amalek prevailed. Growing weary, Moses sat on a stone and  his brother Aaron and companion Hur held his hand steady. The whole incident is a little strange, as it paints Moses almost as some sort of magician casting a spell over the battlefield. If God wanted Israel to claim victory, why not just destroy the Amalekites like He had the Egyptian army? We can learn some valuable lessons from this story.

First, it seems God wants us to have some skin in the game. He gives us our freedoms, but they are ours to defend. When enemies storm the camp, we can’t assume God will take care of it all like a superhero. Of course we depend on Him for our strength, but actual effort is required. For example, if our enemy is hunger, we might remember words attributed to Pope Francis: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”

Second, we have to be willing to receive and give help. Our leaders aren’t superheroes either. Aaron and Hur didn’t stand back and criticize Moses for failing to keep that staff aloft; they offered moral and literal support for as long as it was needed. They took turns because they were invested in the outcome, and leaders can’t do things alone. There was a measure of risk to getting involved: the people of Israel were fickle and quick to turn on their leaders, and if the battle had been lost Moses’s comrades would likely have paid a price. Like them, we need to shore up each other’s faith in difficult times, even when the outcome is uncertain.

Faith is not a miracle factory. It is a source of strength that grows stronger as we share it with others.

Comfort: Not only do you not have to carry every burden alone, it’s a sign of strength to share it.

Challenge: When you can, be part of a solution instead of an observer of problems.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for the community of believers who supports me in my journey. May I pass on the strength you share with me to others who need it too. Amen.

Discussion: In what areas of your life are you passively waiting for God or some earthly leader to solve a problem? What could you be doing to help with it right now?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people.

Unburdened

coal-man-980371_1920

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, Jeremiah 44:1-14, 1 Corinthians 15:30-41, Matthew 11:16-24


Jesus told the people of Galilee (and – through Matthew’s gospel – all of us):

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

“Burden” was a vague term, perhaps intentionally so. Many things can burden us. Guilt. Family obligations. Persecution. Financial troubles. Illness. Worry. The list is endless, yet Jesus offered comfort and reassurance to all who felt burdened for whatever reason. How relieved the people must have been to hear from someone who did not wish to add to their already heavy burdens, but to actually relieve them.

Later on, Jesus had very different words for his disciples:

 If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Well that doesn’t sound like much of a relief, now does it?

Yet these messages are not contradictory. Jesus would have us learn whatever we need to draw closer to him. In the beginning, that may mean learning what burdens we can, should, and must lay at his feet. If the contents of our lives are so overwhelming that they crowd out Jesus, it’s time to let go of them. And if we can’t let go – for example, a caregiver of a sick child – we can spiritually reposition ourselves to let Christ help lighten the load.

We aren’t ready to pick up the cross on day one of discipleship. Before we can handle that weight, we have to be fully settled into Christ’s yoke – to genuinely trust in the strength of his “gentle and humble heart.” It may take a while, but then we can follow free of even the burden of trying to save our own lives.

Whether we need reassurance that it is safe to draw near him, or a push to follow him to the end, Christ’s words speak to us where we are.

Comfort: Wherever you are in your spiritual growth, Jesus is speaking to you.

Challenge: However close we feel to Christ, we can still grow closer.

Prayer: My Lord, I seek to grow ever closer to you. Amen.

Discussion: Which words of Jesus do you find comforting … and which do you find challenging?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Will they follow?

ducks-in-a-row-1316756-1598x1062

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, 1 Kings 12:1-20, James 5:7-20, Mark 15:33-39


Every leader, from a shift manager at a burger joint to the president of the United States, eventually faces the same problem: how to lead when your people are dissatisfied. Almost as soon as Solomon’s son Rehoboam became king, the people of Israel confronted him to lift the heavy burdens placed on them by his father. Rehoboam consulted the older men of his court, and they advised him: “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them […] then they will be your servants forever.” Rehoboam didn’t like that answer so he asked his younger friends who told him to say: “My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” Rehoboam chose to double-down with the scorpions, and the House of David went out of the king business when his people killed his enforcers and drove him out of Israel.

Rehoboam clung to the mistaken belief that a show of power is the same as a show of strength. His fear of appearing weak overrode the wisdom of his senior advisors. Like an inexperienced horseman who tries to lead by force, a fearful leader grips the reins of power too tightly and the people buck. Many businesses, rather than operating on the classic model of imposing decisions and punishing those who disagree, have adopted a habit of asking their employees how to improve productivity, working conditions, and profits before making decisions. Employees (or citizens or congregations) are more invested in an organization and leader they believe values them.

The servant leader doesn’t capitulate to every whim of every person she or he leads. Jesus did not compromise his principles to make the disciples happy – otherwise he would have never ended up on the cross. Servant leaders set aside ego and fear to make the best decisions for their people, even when that means setting aside power and embracing vulnerability. As a result the leader may be loved or despised – usually both – but it does not affect the leadership. True leadership has authority because it displays the strength of sacrificial love.


Comfort: When you are called to lead, you aren’t called to control. 

Challenge: Pay attention to people’s leadership styles. What does it tell you about them?

Prayer: Merciful God, I am in  your service always. Amen. 

Discussion: Whose leadership have you respected, and why?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Thorn In My Side

thorns-419688_1280

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 116; 147:12-20, Song of Solomon 1:1-3, 9-11, 15-16a; 2:2-3a, 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, Luke 19:28-40


Have you ever heard the expression “thorn in my side?” It means a persistent, often painful difficulty. We get this phrase from the Apostle Paul, who wrote to the church in Corinth:

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

We don’t know the exact nature of Paul’s metaphorical thorn. His ailment could have been physical, spiritual, or emotional. Whatever it was, he had to learn to live with it. Paul chose to accept this thorn as an instrument of humility, one that kept him from becoming too full of himself.

We all suffer from something (or maybe several somethings) we’d rather be rid of. From ADD to sexual temptation to lumbago, everyone has a weakness. Paul provides an example of how we might approach such weakness in a positive way. Rather than become resentful or defensive about it, we can let it serve as a reminder to be charitable toward the struggles of others. When we see someone wrestling with the same demons we do, we can judge them (though we are really judging ourselves) or we can be empathetic and supportive. If someone struggles with an issue that gives us no problems at all, we should remember another person might easily pluck out a thorn that has rooted deeply in our own flesh.

“Power is made perfect in weakness” because it illustrates how God is never limited by the same things we are, but also because our weakness, properly considered, tempers our pride.

Our thorn – perhaps from the same branch that circled the head of Christ – is a sign that true love for the suffering is never pity, but solidarity. Though we don’t have to enjoy our weaknesses, let us give thanks for the blessings of humility and love that wouldn’t exist without them.

Comfort: You are not defined by your weakness.

Challenge: When you see others struggle, especially with something you’ve overcome, remember your own thorns.

Prayer: Thank you God for teaching me to rely on you in all things. Amen.

Discussion: How do you react to your own weakness?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Building The Neighborhood

sunrise-in-my-neighborhood-1203517-1599x1066

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Deuteronomy 32:34-41 (42) 43, Romans 15:1-13, Luke 9:1-17


Elementary and middle schools typically provide remedial math and English classes for students who struggle in a traditional classroom. High schools and colleges provide tutoring programs for student-athletes who face academic challenges. The tutors are often fellow students. Has anyone heard of a reciprocal program? Not to artificially divide students into athletic or academic talents, but there is surely at least a subset of the academically gifted who are athletically challenged. Where are the sports and strength tutors returning the favor? There are coaches and trainers, of course, but outside of gym class they spend their time with students already comfortable with athletics.

Paul wrote, “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.” He was speaking of the spiritually strong and weak, but deciding to see the “weak” of any kind as people we have an opportunity to serve, rather than to mock, discipline, or leave behind, applies in many ways. Do we make an effort to help build up our neighbor, or do we find reasons to blame them for their weakness?

The division between the strong and the weak permeates our culture. It’s practically inescapable – even  our romantic vocabulary includes “conquests.” It affects how we view and treat each other, and not for the better.

Part of the Good News is that Christ frees us from the burden of determining who is strong and who is weak. Instead he teaches us to serve each other no matter what. When he sent the twelve apostles to spread the Gospel, he instructed them to take nothing. This vulnerability put them at the mercy of the towns they visited. Why would he have done this, if not to show the strength that is present in willing vulnerability?

Let us put our strengths to service. Let us see weakness as an opportunity to serve. Let us remember that we are all as God has created us, which is reason enough to build up one another.

Comfort: Your weaknesses are opportunities for God to build you up.

Challenge: Pay attention to instances where movies, television, magazines, etc. artificially or unnecessarily divide between the weak and the strong.

Prayer: Loving God, show me where I may serve. Amen.

Discussion: What “weaknesses” particularly bother you?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Holy Underdog!

dragons

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 108; 150, Judges 6:1-24, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, Mark 3:20-30


Like many heroes of Israel, Gideon had a humble beginning. Because the Israelites had begun to worship foreign gods, for seven years the Lord allowed the Midianites and other peoples to raze the crops and livestock of Israel: “They and their livestock would come up […] as thick as locusts; neither they nor their camels could be counted; so they wasted the land as they came in.” Gideon’s family threshed their wheat in a wine press to hide it from the Midianites. When the angel of the Lord appeared and told him he would be Israel’s new champion, Gideon was skeptical: “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” The Lord assured Gideon that – with the Lord at his side – he would be victorious.

Gideon came from a long tradition of underdogs chosen by God (Abraham, Joseph, and Moses to name a few) and many more would follow. What is it God loves about an underdog?

Underdogs are humble. Life has taught them personal strength isn’t always enough. It takes real humility to submit ourselves to God’s will; a person who is used to success on their own terms can find that submission difficult. We have to recognize and admit to our “weaknesses” before they can really become opportunities for God’s strength to shine.

The victory of an underdog is a real testament to faith in God’s power. Had the roles of David and Goliath been reversed, and Goliath been Israel’s giant champion, it would have been just another story of might makes right. When we follow God, right makes might.

Over and over scripture teaches us God has a love of the disenfranchised. The Mosaic Law has numerous rules about treating widows, orphans, and foreigners with compassion. Jesus taught constantly about loving the poor. The prophets tell us Israel fell from God’s favor when the people became satisfied with themselves and ignored the needy. Holy underdogs are a continuous reminder that God’s justice is not about acquiring what we deserve, but about serving others in need.

Comfort: Whether you feel like a champion or not, God loves you as one.

Challenge: In the coming week, watch the news for examples of true underdogs who have accomplished something important of noble. Can you see the Lord’s influence in their lives?

Prayer: Lord, I thank you for the strength that sustains me even when I am weary and afraid. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have a favorite underdog story?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Peace as Surrender

Today’s readings: Psalms 33; 146, Zechariah 2:1-13, Revelation 3:14-22, Matthew 24:32-44

1450153339550

We are not generally fond of the term “surrender” unless it is preceded by “never.” Surrender implies loss, weakness, and cowardice. We lionize those who fight to the death rather than wave the white flag. Our concept of surrender is almost exclusively military, understood in terms of victory or defeat … and ignoble defeat at that.

Maybe that is why we struggle to surrender to God. When we end a prayer for a new job or a good health report with “if it’s God’s will” … doesn’t a small part of us hope God is taking the hint? Truly surrendering to God’s will is a terrifying prospect. One critique of Christians is that we show weakness of character by claiming everything is God’s will to dodge responsibility. Might it be closer to the truth to say we are good at paying lip service to God’s will, but not so good at actually accepting it? Can we really even claim to understand what “God’s will” means? In reality, it takes much courage to surrender ourselves to God; to do so is to risk total annihilation of our own identities.

Except it never seems to turn out that way. When we truly make the effort to surrender ourselves – or even one tiny problem – to God, we find our burdens lightened and our real selves rising to the surface. Does “the effort to surrender” sound like an oxymoron? Isn’t surrender the opposite of doing something? If you’ve tried it, you know it’s not just an effort but an ongoing effort. When we learn to surrender daily, we finally find peace.

Psalm 33 tells us great armies, superior strength, and the mightiest resources ultimately do not save us. Our victory – our peace – lies in trusting the Lord. It’s so easy to convince ourselves our own plans must be God’s plans, and then because we can’t tell the difference, our disappointment robs us of our peace. C.S. Lewis said of prayer: “It doesn’t change God – it changes me.” Let us pray with an attitude of surrender, and trust God to reveal to us our best and most peaceful selves.

Comfort: We can trust that God accepts our surrender with our best interests at heart.

Challenge: What is one problem you need to surrender to God? Put in the work to let it go.